Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Towers of Silence

Indian Parsis (or Parsees) are members of the Zoroastrian religion and descendents of the original Parsis in Iran.  The number of Parsis in India has been dwindling, and may number as few as 50,000, mostly concentrated near Mumbai, with forecasts that the number will fall further to about 23,000 by 2020.

Zoroastrians believe that a dead body is contaminated and must neither be buried (where it would pollute the earth) or cremated (where it would pollute fire).  In order to avoid this pollution, dead bodies are placed near the top of an open circular tower, exposed to sun and to birds of prey.  After about a year, the bones are collected in an ossuary pit at the bottom of the tower, and the final deterioration of the bones is assisted by applications of lime.  Eventually rain water washes the remains through various filters out to sea.

The name Tower of Silence was given to these towers by a British translator in the 19th Century. I had heard of Towers of Silence from two separate sources: an article four years ago in The Economist, and in A Son of the Circus set in Mumbai and reviewed in a previous post.

We visited the "Hanging Gardens" at the top of Malabar Hill in Mumbai, an upscale residential area in Mumbai.  The Gardens are a lovely urban oasis in a busy city, with a pleasant view over the smog-covered city below.  They sit immediately adjacent to the Mumbai Tower of Silence.  The park is built on top of an enclosed reservoir; it's said the reservoir was originally enclosed to avoid contamination from the Tower of Silence.

There is a major problem these days with the towers: the vultures on whom they depend are being devastated by diclofenac, a drug used to treat cattle (as described in detail in this article from The Economist).  Vultures not only help with human bodies in Towers of Silence; they are a key part of the Indian ecosystem in getting rid of the carcuses of cattle and buffalo.  Since Indians don't eat much beef and revere sacred cows and since there are about 200M cattle and buffalo in India used exclusively for milk, Indian farmers have depended on vultures to dispose of their carcuses.  These cows have been the carriers of diclofenac to the vultures.

Both vultures and Parsis are dwindling in numbers.  Sadly, it's a question of who will outlast whom.  The good news for the vultures is that diclofenac is now banned (though farmers are allowed to use up their old stocks), and there are conservationists breeding vultures in captivity.  Meanwhile, Parsis are experimenting with other techniques such as installing solar relectors to speed up the action of the sun.

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